a time when the Israeli rightist parties are going through a wrenching
debate over whether to approve Ariel Sharon's proposal for a unilateral
withdrawal from Gaza, it's worth recalling Israel's previous experience
in this regard — its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Although
that withdrawal is remembered as a failure, it deserves to be rehabilitated.
Israel's Lebanon withdrawal was a great strategic success — for
reasons that Israel should be studying now.
First, a few
facts: After years of bloody guerrilla warfare that cost Israel
dearly in lives and treasure, on May 22, 2000, Israel unilaterally
withdrew from south Lebanon to the internationally recognized border.
On July 27, 2000, the U.N. passed Resolution 1310, confirming that
Israel had "withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in accordance with
With that U.N.-approved
pullout, Israel completely reversed its situation: It went from
holding the strategic and moral low ground, to holding the strategic
and moral high ground. When Israel was occupying south Lebanon it
was embroiled in a guerrilla war in which it could never use its
vast military superiority. It was going mano a mano with Hezbollah.
Worse, any Hezbollah attack on Israel was seen by the world as legitimate
resistance. Once Israel was out, it could use its superior air power
to retaliate for Hezbollah attacks — and the world didn't care.
the critics, "But the Palestinians saw the Israeli withdrawal as
a sign of weakness and it triggered their Intifada II." Well, maybe
the Palestinians did watch too much Hezbollah TV. Their mistake.
But I'll tell you who didn't misread Israel's withdrawal: the people
it was directed at — Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria.
it can't launch any serious attack on Israel from Lebanon now without
triggering a massive retaliation in which Israel's air force would
destroy all the power plants of Beirut. This would bring down the
wrath of all of Lebanon on Hezbollah — because the Lebanese public
would not consider an unprovoked Hezbollah attack on Israel as legitimate,
or worth sacrificing for, now that Israel is out of Lebanon and
Lebanon's sovereignty is restored.
"In every conflict,
the extent to which a party can muster domestic support and international
support, and the extent to which its public will withstand higher
thresholds of pain, is very much a function of the degree of international
legitimacy for that cause," argues Shibley Telhami, Middle East
studies professor at the University of Maryland. "As soon as Israel
withdrew from Lebanon to the internationally recognized border,
the legitimacy factor shifted from Hezbollah to Israel. This may
seem abstract, but it's not."
When you have
legitimacy on your side, your people, and the world, support you
more, and the other side's people, and the world, support them less.
Yes, the Israel-Lebanon border is still tense, but very few Israelis
have been killed there in four years. That's my idea of peace. There
is no total victory to be had by Israel over Hezbollah or the Palestinians,
without total genocide. There is, though, the possibility of long
cease-fires, with Israel holding the moral and strategic high ground,
so it can lead its life. In north Israel today, Israelis can focus
on what they want, which is making microchips, leaving the unlucky
south Lebanese — who are trapped under the brain-dead Syrian and
Hezbollah regimes — to make potato chips.
for Israel is clear: If you are going to get out of Gaza unilaterally,
get out all the way to the U.N.-blessed international border. Do
not do it halfway; otherwise you end up with the worst of all worlds:
still embroiled in a guerrilla war, still taking casualties, unable
to use your superior firepower and getting blamed for everything.
Gaza may be easier than Lebanon, too, because unlike Syria and Hezbollah,
the Palestinian Authority and Egypt would not have an interest —
after an Israeli pullout — in keeping Gaza boiling. Because that
would empower Hamas.
right insists that Israel is surrounded by implacable foes. That
may be true. It may be that Israel can only hope for different models
of insecurity with its neighbors. If so, I'd choose the Lebanon
model: Get out all the way to an internationally legitimized, U.N.
border and deal with enemies from the moral and strategic high ground.
The view is better — and it's much safer up there.